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The Precautionary Principle

I wonder how many New Zealanders recall the case of the Nigerian musician who toured the country a few years ago and, knowing he was HIV positive, had unprotected sex with several women and, in the process, infected them with the AIDS virus. We might say: “How terrible” or “More fool them”. But however we may look at it morally, no medical treatment for them, nor prison sentence for the perpetrator, nothing in fact will ever restore things to how they were before the disastrous encounters. The damage has been done and it is too late. Yet simple precautions could have avoided so much anguish for so many.

Scientists call this ‘be careful, take precautions’ approach to dealing with potential dangers The Precautionary Principle. It is extraordinary simple: if you are not sure it is safe, don’t do it.

Sadly, time after time, we have seen the Precautionary Principle forgotten, ignored, thrown out the window. I will not bother to catalogue the dozens of examples from history, but a notable example was coating almost everything in sight in with the ‘wonder chemical’ DDT during the 1940s and 50s: everything from servicemen with parasites to lettuces with larvae. It continued till the entire planet’s ecosystem was contaminated, then [a couple of decades later, when it was too late] it was discovered that DDT was not actually safe after all and was causing disastrous changes to the biochemistry of a wide range of living things, especially those at the top of the food chain . But DDT breaks down slowly, so the legacy of toxicity that resulted from that over-zealous use of DDT will remain, perhaps for centuries.

Why raise this now? Because on the energy front, policy makers don’t know about, have forgotten about, have deliberately ignored, or decided to throw out The Precautionary Principle. And in doing so, they are jeopardising the future of the planet, just as much as if they were to continue to encourage the widespread use of DDT.

When we think about oil, we can base our assumptions on the best available evidence, or we can ignore the evidence and assume we live in some fantastic world where scientific evidence is refutable. In the extremity of fantasy, we can assume oil is an infinite resource that will last for ever because the Earth produces it as fast as we use it. Fortunately, few people, not even our Minister of Energy, hold this opinion. Most rational people acknowledge that oil is finite and therefore, at some point of time, we must reach a peak in extraction that corresponds to approximately half the world’s endowment being used up. If we accept that Peak Oil is a real phenomenon, then the next obvious question is: ‘When will the peak of extraction from the earth occur?’ The answer to this depends very much on who you ask and ranges from around 2007 to after 2067. Oil geologists tend to favour 2007; economists tend to favour 2067. That does expose the whimsical contradiction that economists appear to think themselves far better at finding oil than oil geologists. For an official word on the matter, we can quote the Trevor Mallard’s letter of 31st Jan 2005: ‘probability highest around 2037’.

Now from the perspective of the ordinary citizen living today, a peak in extraction in 2037 is very a different matter from a peak in 2007. A peak in extraction in 2037 implies we have decades to develop alternatives and can continue on our present course for some time yet (ignoring the global warming aspect of course*). On the other hand, a peak in 2007 corresponds with the end of society as we know it by around 2017 (if not well before then), since we would be experiencing declining supplies and rising costs and there would be no time to develop strategies to cope. Although we can never predict the peak exactly, clearly a reasonably close definition of the timing of Peak Oil is crucial to our energy planning and getting it wrong will be disastrous.

That brings me back to The Precautionary Principle: Assuming that a peak in extraction will occur around 2007 spurs society into rapid action and results in the radical changes that enable society to work toward a soft landing -there can be no delusions about technical fixes that maintain current lifestyles. Should the peak not occur in 2007, we would have no regrets, knowing that we had begun a transition to a safer and more sustainable society. On the other hand, should we ignore the Precautionary Principle (as the NZ Government seems determined to do) and assume that Peak Oil will not occur for decades, the consequences could be unimaginably bad. Let us suppose that the peak occurs in 2008, a year that many very reputable scientists believe this is extremely likely. The Government would attribute oil supplies not meeting demand to other factors, such as terrorism, and continue to ignore the issue. Discovering some time later, say in 2009, that we had indeed peaked, we would find ourselves on a slippery slope and just as badly caught out as the women I mentioned at the start, with about as much hope of salvation. We would find ourselves in the situation of receiving declining deliveries of oil at ever higher prices, economic factors that would surely derail the economy, if not our entire society. And by the same token, if those oil geologists and energy analysts who plumb for peak in 2006 are correct, the crisis is even closer and the government even less prepared. Regrettably, that seems to best describe the path the government of Helen Clark has chosen for New Zealand –ignore the evidence, take no precautions and maintain a state of total unpreparedness.

* all the evidence points to global warming, just like oil supply, rapidly reaching the point of no return

Kevin Moore February 2005

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